Friday, February 24, 2012

George Flinn Mulling Over 9th District Race (that's right, 9th!)

Posted By on Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 8:02 PM

George Flinn
  • George Flinn
George Flinn, the Memphis radiologist/radio magnate who has increasingly turned to politics in recent years, will very likely do so again, sources tell the Flyer. This time Republican Flinn, who served six years on the Shelby County Commission and made races for County Mayor in 2002 and for the 8th District Congressional seat in 2010, apparently is aiming at Congress once more.

Only now it’s the 9th District seat, the one currently held by Democrat Steve Cohen. There’s already a Republican running — Charlotte Bergman, making her second consecutive try — but she’s on a shoestring budget, and Flinn, who is independently wealthy and spent more than $3 million in his 2010 race, would clearly be able to match war chests with Cohen, who is said to have close to $1 million on hand himself.

Flinn, who formerly lived in the River Oaks section of East Memphis, is now firmly within the confines of the 9th District, which has been redistricted to include sections of North Shelby County and Cordova that his backers believe are Republican-friendly.

The 9th District, however, is still majority-black, and is considered the most reliably Democratic of Tennessee’s nine congressional areas.

In entering a 9th District race, Flinn would find himself in the familiar position of facing long odds. Though he was able to defeat former state Rep. Larry Scroggs in the 2002 GOP primary, he was clearly an underdog against A.C. Wharton in the general election for County Mayor. And, when Flinn began his 2010 congressional race, eventual winner Stephen Fincher of rural Frog Jump had been campaigning hard for at least a year in the 8th District and had sewed up much Republican Party support.

Cohen would be another formidable foe — having dispatched his last several opponents, both Democratic and Republican, by lopsided ratios.

More details to come in next week’s Flyer.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

County Commissioner Taylor Says Single-Member Districts Would Result in "Extremists"

Posted By on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 8:59 PM


Commissioner Taylor reveals the link between “extremists” and single-member districts, citing Steve Mulroy as a case in point.

Speaking to members of the Collierville Republican Club Tuesday night, Shelby Count y Commissioner Brent Taylor seconded the conclusion of two colleagues, Wyatt Bunker and Chris Thomas, that a Commission redistricting by the current model — four three-member districts and one single-member district — was more conducive to electing Republican commissioners than a system of 13 single-member districts would be.

But Taylor gave another reason for disdaining single-member districts. They allow for the election of “extremists” of one kind or another, he said. As he explained his reasoning, he cited as an example District 5 Commissioner Steve Mulroy of Memphis, a Democrat and the only member of the Commission currently serving in a single-member district.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy
  • Commissioner Steve Mulroy
“With single-member districts, you’ll end up electing members from the extremes of both ends of the political spectrum, “Taylor said, continuing, “I mean this with all due respect to Commissioner Mulroy, but he is the most liberal member by far of the County Commission.”

Taylor then went on with further analysis of his point, citing differences between the Tennessee House of Representatives and the state Senate and even concluding that, when he was a member of the Memphis City Council, he always looked up to the County Commission with its larger multi-member districts as being a more dignified, ideologically balanced body.

Bunker and Thomas were the scheduled speakers for the Club’s regular monthly meeting, and they agreed with Taylor about multi-member districts being better for Republicans, allowing for six possible Republicans on the 13-member body, than single-member districts, which, they contended, would produce a maximum of four Republicans.

Thomas acknowledged that he had relented on his opposition to single-member districts and joined eight other commissioners in voting Aye on the second reading for a single-member plan at Monday’s Commission meeting. But he left open the prospect that he could change his mind, reverting to his original preference for multi-member districts when votes are taken on a third reading on

Can the Hysteria Over School Merger!

Posted By on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 at 10:58 AM

angry_crowd_2.jpg
Does anyone know where to get Valium in aerosol cans? We could use such a device to calm unruly groups of people who panic first and use their brains later.

If there were such a thing, I would buy a case and saturate the rooms where suburban mayors and citizens meet regularly to hone their anti-Memphis rhetoric in order to spring into hysterical (over)reaction to merging the city and county school systems. Perhaps then, reason and facts could become part of the discussion.

Outside of a measure of savings produced by combining the bureaucracies, and only through attrition over a decade or two, here is what will happen if the two systems become one: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The county schools will not decline and the city schools will not improve. Merely merging the urban and suburban systems will have a net zero effect on test scores of individual schools within any combined enterprise, however it is constructed.

Why? Because the reason city schools perform less well than county schools is that a majority of city parents are less prosperous and less educated. This is no criticism of those parents. Nor is it a compliment to most county parents. The reason that county schools produce higher test scores is because a majority of parents have more resources to give their children.

It is indisputable that a child of means will almost always outscore a child whose resources are meager.

This explains the supposed superiority of the employees of the county system whose arms ought to be really tired by now, being that they have been in a near permanent position of back-patting for the higher achievement measures with which they are credited. Here is a fact: what the county system does merely supports the good effects parents are creating at home; it does not make them from scratch.

A reality check for suburban parents is in order, too, as the resources they provide are not comprised of Herculean tasks against overwhelming obstacles. Yes, they are to be respected for providing a safe, stable and prosperous environment in which to rear their children. But middle-class families beget middle-class families, and if you did not grow up in poverty, chances are you will never experience it.

So, can we dial back the arrogance and the hysteria? Both sentiments preclude sensible solutions. And obscure the reasons why there are two systems in more than strictly territorial terms.

As for the city schools' insistence that they control part of the unified system, they should just throw in the towel and let the county schools take over. Not because county personnel have some magic fairy dust to sprinkle over classrooms, but since the county claims that they know better how to educate children, the city ought to make them prove it. Let's see how easy the county thinks it is to manage a system when a large number of disadvantaged kids are part of it. Of course, that would explain the vehement opposition of county administrators to the merger—they might actually have to back up some of their self-serving bombast.

Until there is a way to erect a force field that starts near Kirby Parkway and Poplar and extends north, south and east of the county's own Eden, the city's problems will continue to be the county's problems. Every poorly-educated child has a negative effect on the entire community and if there were such a thing as a force field protecting suburban Shelby County, sooner or later one of its citizens would have to leave its confines to go to the airport, or an Orpheum show, or to take in a basketball game.

That impoverished child whose very existence in a county-run system so terrifies some of you is still out there, hoping for a better life, but likely to be a drain on regional resources. A separate system cannot separate you from that reality.

So, suburban Shelby County: take a breath, get a clue and climb down from your high dudgeon.

Unless you want me to pull out the aerosol

Ruth Ogles Johnson is a frequent Flyer contributor.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Howard Richardson, Democratic Patriarch and Labor Figure, Dies

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Howard Richardson - PHOTO BY RICK MAYNARD

Howard Richardson, a former president of the Shelby County AFL-CIO Labor Council and a prominent longtime member of the Shelby County Democratic Party, died Sunday at the age of 81 after a lengthy illness.

Richardson, a well-liked figure across factional and even party lines, was active in numerous political campaigns, and his South Memphis home was a familiar location for both political rallies and social gatherings.

A former International Vice President of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Richardson had also been chairman of the NAACP Labor and Industry Committee. He had recently retired as an officer for the Shelby County Democratic Steering Committee.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been released.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gulf remains as TPC, Suburban Mayors Meet Regarding Schools

Posted By on Thu, Feb 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Luttrell; McDonald
  • Luttrell; McDonald
Can a compromise be reached on the increasingly complicated school-merger issue? The question was sure to get a workout at Thursday afternoon’s session of the Transition Planning Commission — a summit meeting of sorts, with sub urban mayors appearing before the TPC to discuss the shape of things to come.

Meanwhile, two of the principals at the meeting were elaborating on their positions.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell confirmed to the Flyer that a 2010 opinion on a Gibson County case by state Attorney General Robert Cooper was the basis for his doubts that separate suburban school districts could qualify for mandatory county funding under the state’s A.D.A. (average daily attendance) distribution formula.

But Luttrell, who said he was banking on an interpretation of that opinion by County Attorney Kelley Rayne, said he was open to considering “contractual” arrangements with breakaway districts.

Simultaneously, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, one of the leading figures in the move toward autonomous suburban school districts (and, like Luttrell, a member of the TPC himself) said he did not believe the two-year-old Cooper opinion had relevance to Shelby County or to the taxing formulas proposed to finance the suburban districts.

These involved municipal add-ons to residents’ property tax or sales tax obligations or both, as per advice rendered the suburbs by Southern Educational Strategies, their common consultants.

McDonald acknowledged that the litigation on the funding issue, as well as on the question of compensation for the transfer of school properties to the proposed new districts, could stretch past August 2013, established by the Norris-Todd Act as the target date for completion of city/county merger and the earliest date for establishment of independent municipal school districts.

“That’s if the problem has to be solved in the courts and can’t be resolved by legislation,” said McDonald, who repeated that independent districts remained the goal for the suburbs and that a compromise proposal for converting the suburban schools into charter schools under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Shelby County School Board was a “Plan B” alternative, at best.

Luttrell noted the obvious, however — that even if the dispute over transfer of school properties could be accomplished without additional cost to the suburbs, the problem of whether county financial support would be mandated for the new districts remained an obstacle to their creation. And he said it was his view that the 2010 Cooper opinion was general enough in its application to apply to Shelby County.

Key portions of the Cooper opinion state, “[i]f a municipal or special school district is operating in a county, then that district is accountable to the state for the operation of the municipal or special school systems, not the county or the county school system. Nothing in the statutes requires the county to oversee or be responsible for municipal, special, or other school districts that operate within the county’s borders….”

Other municipalities besides Bartlett engaged actively in the pursuit of new municipal school districts are Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Lakeland — all of which intend to conduct May referenda of their residents on the question. Millington may also seek a municipal district.

Presumably, alternatives to the establishment of separate suburban school districts — a number of which have been suggested at previous meetings of the TPC — were to be discussed at Thursday afternoon’s TPC meeting. These would include the oft-mentioned “chancery model,” involving a loose confederation of largely autonomous areas under the general supervision of a common school board.


UPDATE (DETAILS FROM TPC MEETNG WITH SUBURBAN MAYORS)

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner makes opening statement at meeting with TPC
  • jb
  • Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner makes opening statement at meeting with TPC


Thursday’s meeting, presided over by Planning Commission chair Barbara Prescott, was conducted with decorous politeness and even occasional good humor on both sides, but the prospect of an accord receded ever further as the suburban mayors made their case for independent school districts and various TPC members kept prodding, looking in vain for a softening in the mayors’ resolve.

The mayors — Bartlett’s McDonald, Germantown’s Sharon Goldsworthy, Arlington’s Mike Wissman, Collierville’s Stan Joyner, Lakeland’s Scott Carmichael, and Linda Carter, acting mayor of Millington — made a coordinated group presentation, with each taking turns and speaking to a different facet of the issue.

Only once did an opportunity for compromise seem to beckon. That was when Bartlett Mayor McDonald suggested that the suburban municipalities could postpone their breakaway timetable if the deadline for merger of the city and county school systems could somehow be extended. “If the judge said we had two more years to get this right, I’m on board,” McDonald proclaimed.

As a concession, that proposition had numerous holes in it, though — two major ones being that McDonald was offering only a delay, not an outright cancellation, and that the merger deadline is apparently fixed, having been written into state law under the terms of the 2011 Norris-Todd Act. Federal judge Hardy Mays has jurisdiction over the merger, but his orders to date have kept to the deadline of August 2013.

Both the mayors and, somewhat more surprisingly, the TPC members demonstrated solidarity on behalf of their respective viewpoints. Except for the highly qualified offer on McDonald’s part, there was very little give from either side.

Even TPC members David Pickler and Tommy Hart, both representing suburban constituencies, made a point of probing for a middle way — Colliervillian Hart suggesting that, by forging ahead with their planned May referenda on establishing municipal districts, the suburbs were “disenfranchising your citizens.” They should instead wait to see what alternate choices the TPC might yet offer in the way of autonomy within the Uniform School District, he said.

That argument was rejected, in turn, by Wissman, who opined that “what’s done is done;” Goldsworthy, who described the referenda as merely a means of “asking the community” for an opinion; and McDonald, who said that, for people in Bartlett, that city’s referendum was regarded as “not a reaction, but an opportunity.” On the same theme, Goldsworthy spoke of a sense of “excitement,” and the mayors all seemed to agree that their citizens would be adamantly against turning back.

"The train has left the station," is how McDonald put it. And Goldsworthy expressed a concern that any delay in proceeding might "cause people to leave public education."

Asked what their primary motivation for pursuing independent municipal districts was, the mayors all collectively agreed on the term “local control,” which had been the topic that Collierville’s Joyner, who led off the mayoral presentations, had stressed. Other supposed advantages touted by the suburban mayors included “financial accountability,” “stability,” “efficiency,” and the opportunity for educational innovation.

Sitting in on the initial presentations but leaving early was Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. Shelby County Mayor Luttrell, whose idea it had been to invite the mayors, remained silent for most of the meeting but hazarded a summary of sorts toward the end. Luttrell said that the members of the Planning Commission had discovered unexpected complexities in their own labors and that the suburban municipalities risked overlooking major problems through undue haste. He suggested that the municipalities put their plans, which included hiring superintendents, on hold for a year.

Joyner said “We’re relying on our experts,” referring to the consulting group engaged by the suburbs, Southern Educational Strategies. TPC member Chris Richards, a lawyer, responded that the consultants’ prospectus was “fundamentally flawed,” especially in its assumption that the municipal districts would be able to draw upon students in unincorporated areas, a premise that she doubted would withstand judicial scrutiny.

The discussion, which lasted roughly an hour and half, ended as it had begun, with no middle ground. Somewhat surprisingly, neither the issue of county funding nor that of how to handle transfer of school properties to the municipal districts received much attention per se.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Attorney General’s Two-Year-Old Opinion May Validate Luttrell’s Funding Doubts

Posted By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 3:41 PM

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper
  • Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper
As visitors to our pages can observe, the issue of Shelby County’s financial liability for any potential new municipal school districts — doubts concerning which were expressed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and first raised here — may perhaps be illuminated by a 2010 opinion from state Attorney General Robert Cooper.

(We say “perhaps” because only the courts, dealing with specific litigation, could determine whether and how and to what extent the language of this opinion might apply to the current efforts by Shelby County’s municipal governments to create and operate separate special school districts under the sanction of the 2011 Norris-Todd Act. It needs to be stressed also that, under Tennessee law, the state Attorney General’s opinions are just that; they do not have the force of judicial rulings.)

Dated April 28, 2010, Cooper’s Opinion No. 10-58 is entitled “Opinion from state Attorney General Robert Cooper, April 28, 2010, on ‘County Commission’s Role in Funding Special School Districts.’”

The opinion deals with a number of issues, all relating to the primary one, stated below:

1. In a county in which a county school system and a separate special school district are operated, what is the responsibility of the County Commission to provide funding to the special school district?

The salient portion of the Attorney General’s analysis on the point follows [our bolds]:

1. In a county in which there is both a county school system and a separate school district which is funded by property taxes levied by the General Assembly, the county commission has no responsibility to provide funding to the special school district.

In this statutory scheme of responsibility and accountability, the county has no role unless and to the extent it is actually operating a school system. Even then, it is the county school system, not the county government itself, that is accountable to the state for education. If a municipal or special school district is operating in a county, then that district is accountable to the state for the operation of the municipal or special school systems, not the county or the county school system.

Nothing in the statutes requires the county to oversee or be responsible for municipal, special, or other school districts that operate within the county’s borders….”

A leading critic of the suburbs' school plans, Uniform Shelby County School Board member Martavius Jones, was asked to respond to these contents. While stressing that he, too, was not a lawyer and could not speak authoritatively on a matter of law, Jones said that the language of the Cooper opinion was consistent with his own research of Tennessee statutes governing the financial responsibilities of county governments for special school districts.

“So here’s another potential flaw— the assumption of county funding — in the arguments of the consultants who have been advising the municipalities on the feasibility of their proposed school districts,” said Jones, who argued that this issue, along with the still unresolved matter of appropriate compensation for school buildings, and what he regards as the consultants’ low-balling of projected expenses, created “a flawed and false reality.”

Jones said, “It was already unrealistic for them [the suburban municipalities and/or their consultants, Southern Educational Strategies] to believe that a 15-cent tax property tax increase or a 50-cent increase in the sales tax could pay for these districts. It is all the more so now.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

Luttrell: Honest (but Cautious) Broker

Shelby County's mayor has proved to be even-handed on school consolidation but protective of county interests.

Posted By on Mon, Feb 13, 2012 at 12:49 PM

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell
  • JB
  • Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell
Anyone attempting to locate Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell on the political spectrum might soon think himself lost on a road map reflecting back-and-forth meandering, abrupt directional switches, and confusion as to an ultimate destination point.

The key word here is “might.” Actually, there is an admirable consistency to Luttrell’s sense of mission and Gestalt. He is a centrist who, while he found himself cast as the Shelby County Republican Party’s ticket leader during the county election cycle of 2010 (and was vital to the GOP’s striking success that year), never made any secret of the fact that he deplores partisanship in local government.

Over and over he has made it clear that if he had his way, elections for county offices would revert to the non-partisan mode that governed them until the early ‘90s when first the Republicans and then the Democrats took to holding local primaries for these jobs.

Note: I’m already anticipating comments/rejoinders from Democratic activists pointing out that Luttrell was on a platform with such-and-such a Big-Time Republican at such-and-such a time and place and endorsed So-and-So against a Democratic opponent backaways.

To which I say: So What? Such pro forma appearances and declarations are the dues that any politician pays for participation in a party-oriented system which, so long as it exists, makes it prohibitively difficult for acknowledged independents to win. It is a matter of record, however, that Luttrell has lately encountered more resistance to his proposals (e.g., on the consolidation of county government’s IT programs) from the County Commission’s Republicans than from its Democrats.

This is no endorsement. There have certainly been Luttrell policies, both as mayor and as sheriff, that can be contested on ideological and other grounds. But his conduct during the various battles over school consolidation over the past year and a half has clearly been that of an official seeking a solution amenable to all sides. As well as one determined, like Luttrell’s Memphis mayoral counterpart, A C Wharton, to maintain local prerogatives.

Luttrell, who attempted to broker a compromise during the earliest moments of the consolidation crisis in late 2010, has been a member for the past several months of the post-Norris-Todd Transition Planning Commission. As such, he has served as something of a mediator.

The county mayor has made it clear that he accepts the realities of Norris-Todd, including that Act’s escape clause permitting the suburban municipalities, as of August 2013, to form their own school districts, to be distinct from that of a merged city/county system. But, when state Representative Curry Todd (R-Collierville) introduced a bill last month that, in effect, would have handed off existing county school structures to those districts, still not formed, Luttrell stated his opposition.

“I don’t think the state ought to be dictating to Shelby County how we dispose of our property,” he told the assembled members of the Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville. “That needs to be a decision that’s made at the local level between the school board and the municipalities.” And he added that, before such Rubicons should be crossed, the TPC should be allowed to finish its work.

It was also Luttrell, however, who successfully urged the TPC to hear out the suburban mayors on their future educational plans — which the Planning Commission will do at its regularly scheduled Thursday meeting this very week.

That session is qualified in two important ways that casual observers might have missed. As TPC chair Barbara Prescott pointed out at last week’s meeting, it is incumbent upon the mayors to raise questions of the Commission, not vice versa. And it is they who will be heard from, not, as TPC member and ex-Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler had suggested, the professional consultants advising the mayors on their proposed school systems.

When County Commissioner Walter Bailey proposed a resolution, week before last, containing the terms of compensation which should accrue to any transfer of school properties from the Uniform School Board to the proposed suburban school districts, Luttrell objected to the measure as hasty and ill-advised — a factor in the ultimate tie vote that stymied the resolution.

The mayor’s main objection was that the resolution would tend to close off discussion between the various principals to the dispute — city, county, and state. When the resolution was recast last week, yielding negotiation over such matters to Luttrell himself on behalf of the County Commission and the Uniform School Board, it passed.

The mayor made a point of stressing, “We do need to protect our interests,” and assured Bailey, “My passion rivals yours in protecting the assets of this community. While eschewing any “fear of Nashville” per se, Luttrell said, “I do believe Nashville should stay out of our business.”

Further confirmation that the county mayor, while serving as an honest broker, intended to maintain the interests of the whole county (70 percent of whose residents live within Memphis city limits) came from the fact that he floated some doubt regarding the legal liabilities of county government to provide financial support to any new municipal school districts.

And he specifically cautioned the residents of the suburbs, who scheduled to vote in May referenda regarding creation of such districts, “…I would hope that the municipal districts would do their due diligence and make sure that they have answers to some of those questions before they take this to a referendum…. We know there will be state and federal funding, but to what extent there will be county funding is just not clear at this moment. We just don’t know.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Would Memphis Suburbs Have to Do Without County Funding for New School Districts?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 1:26 PM

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell
  • Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell

(This article has been revised and -- modestly -- re-titled since its first publication early Friday afternoon, prior to the special County Commission meeting regarding the thorny issue of how to deal with the potential transfer of school buildings to new municipal school districts in suburbia.)

It now seems a forgone conclusion that the suburban municipalities of Shelby County will form their own school districts as the formal merger of city and county schools proceeds.

The main issue of contention is whether they should be required to pay for the existing school buildings they hope to inherit, and state Sen. Mark Norris has said he is preparing legislation on the subject.

But coming to the fore is another issue.

County mayor Mark Luttrell, who, at a special meeting of the Shelby County Commission on Friday, was endowed by the Commission with special negotiating powers on school-property and other matters, had earlier confided to the Flyer that he and various other governmental entities are investigating the possibility that any new suburban school districts may not have automatic access to the county general fund for educational purposes (as the evanescent Memphis City Schools system always has had).

Other sources in county government confirm that such a theory has been under discussion.

Should it be acted upon and validated by the courts, it could well be something of a deal-breaker for the municipalities.

Meeting with reporters following Friday's special Commission meeting, Luttrell elaborated on questions regarding the future financial obligations of the county vis-à-vis future municipal school districts.

The mayor addressed the possibility of there being no funding of new school districts from the county general fund cautiously but unmistakably, proffering the following caveat to those in the suburbs moving to create the new school districts.:

“We don’t know all the details of funding of municipal districts if they go that direction. And. I would hope that the municipal districts would do their due diligence and make sure that they have answers to some of those questions before they take this to a referendum…. I would just hope that our suburban municipalities would take time to get answers to those questions.”

The county’s financial obligation to the new districts remained “an unanswered question,” Luttrell said. “We know there will be state and federal funding, but to what extent there will be county funding is just not clear at this moment. We just don’t know.”

Luttrell said the funding issue was being researched not just by the county attorney’s office but by the state Attorney General and the state Department of Education.

Add to this the fact that Luttrell's new mission, sanctioned by the Commission but already underway on his own tack, is to explore the possibilities of binding compensation agreements on the transfer of school buildings from the Uniform Shelby County School Board to the prospective new suburban districts.

The additional expense this could entail, added to an enlarged burden of self-financing, could involve residents of the suburban municipalities with more financial responsibilities for public education than the forecasts of their consultants, Southern Educational Strategies, have estimated.

(More on the county mayor's new role will be forthcoming in a separate weekend article.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ramsey, Attorney General Cooper Say No to Annexation Bills, and Norris Stands Down

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 9:56 PM

Norris tries to laugh it off.
  • Norris tries to laugh it off.
It wasn’t a good day for Mark Norris in Nashville. As usual, the Republican state Senate Majority Leader from Collierville had the last word in Thursday morning’s end-of-week Senate session, and this time, prior to calling for adjournment on Monday, he had to eat a little crow. It turned out to be the first portion of a multi-course meal that was served to him throughout the day.

Thursday morning’s nibble came in the form of a segue to a request made by state Senator Charlotte Burks (D-Monterey), who told the Chair of the day that she wanted to withdraw her sponsorship of Senate Bill 3059, which, as captioned, would seem to prohibit various county officials in Tennessee from getting paid for assorted “special services. “

Said Burks, smiling self-effacingly, “This is a bad bill that I accepted and didn’t look at real well. So I would like to withdraw it.”

That was followed by Norris, who donned a sheep-eating grin of his own as he referenced the jam he’d gotten himself into with Senate Bills 3702 and 3703, measures that would disrupt the delicate equilibrium created by Public Chapter 1101 of 1998. That peacemaking bill had been passed to provide a modus vivendi on urban annexations statewide, and especially for Shelby County, which had just gone through the “Toy Towns” scare of 1997
.
The two proposed new bills — which he’d co-sponsored with a pair of fellow Shelby County Republicans, state Representatives Curry Todd and Ron Lollar — would abruptly remove the Gray’s Creek/Fisherville area in eastern Shelby County from Memphis’ annexation reserve and make the City’s annexations anywhere else subject to referenda of the affected populations.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the City Council had reacted angrily by setting in motion an ordinance for the immediate annexation of Gray’s Creek/Fisherville. At the moment both the bills and the ordinance were in a state of mutual suspended animation — loaded pistols aimed and cocked as a showdown loomed.

“Senator Burks, I empathize with you,” said Norris now. And he tilted his eyes upward to take in the Senate galleries as well as the cameras which, as he knew, were transmitting live images to such interested onlookers in Tennessee as might be looking in online. “Those tuning in to Civics 101 today,” he said, by way of acknowledging the audience.

And then he addressed himself to the current status of SBs 3702 and 3703. Quoting a headline in “today’s publication down in West Tennessee” (i.e., The Commercial Appeal) as saying the bills “remain alive,” Norris demurred. “I don’t think I said that. I think I said they’re on life support.” Alluding to the fact that he had requested a ruling on the two bills’ constitutionality from state Attorney General Robert Cooper, Norris said, “They need to stay on the desk until the Pony Express from the A.G.’s office gets here. So, Charlotte, I understand how you feel.”

Whereupon he moved that the Senate adjourn for the weekend.

Meanwhile, various state government notables were in attendance at the annual meeting of the Tennessee Press Association, which is where Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the Senate Speaker and Norris’ immediate superior, served him his second course in absentia.

In a Q-and-A session, Ramsey was asked about the ongoing standoff between Norris and his two House confederates, on one hand, and Memphis city government, on the other, regarding the two annexation bills.

Ramsey, who rarely minces his words when he differs from Governor Bill Haslam, his superior, declined to do so now in relation to Norris, his lieutenant: “I think Public Chapter 1101 is working well as it is right now. I know that Sen. Norris has pressures — I understand very well — from constituents that want to amend that. But I saw the annexation wars up front and first-hand in the early and mid-‘90s, and most of that’s stopped, not only in my area but all across the state after that because they put some reasonable restrictions on annexation and I think we’re all reluctant to revisit that any more.”

A gentle rebuff from the Majority Leader, but a rebuff all the same. Ramsey would continue: “He’s had a lot of petitions from that area. But I don’t think he’s moving forward with it. He’s not moving forward with it. He introduced the bill because he thought it was the right thing to do at the time, but I’m sure that he’s not going to move it now.”

Ouch! A veritable cease-and-desist order from the Speaker. That was closely followed by the long-awaited opinion from Attorney General Cooper, which pronounced the bills “constitutionally suspect” because of their limited ad hoc application to a single county and municipality.

In other words: Dinner is served!

And that in turn was followed up by Norris, who’d finally had enough crow and, seemingly reluctantly, pushed himself away from a table which he himself had laid. He withdrew the two bills, but not without one last attempt at self-extenuation.

“Citizens in these communities want their voices to be heard, which was the impetus for filing the legislation,” he said in a written statement. “Although we felt this would likely be the outcome, it was important enough to our constituents to file the bills and get the Attorney General’s opinion.”

There’s a curious footnote to that claim, made by Norris regarding the alleged importuning of himself, Todd, and Lollar by Fisherville citizens demanding the passage of the controversial and now defunct legislation.

On Tuesday, as the Memphis City Council readied to pass what would be the first reading of three required ones of the annexation ordinance regarding Gray’s Creek, a delegation of citizens from the Fisherville community had pleaded with Council members to desist. Sympathetically but firmly, various Council members pointed out that they had not wanted to annex Gray’s Creek but that the state had forced their hand.

In the course of what, all things considered, was a good-natured colloquy, Councilman Bill Boyd addressed John Bogan, president of the Fisherville Civic Club and the man widely regarded as the source of agitation for Fisherville’s protection from annexation, asking Bogan point blank if he had urged Norris, Todd, and Lollar to sponsor the two annexation bills.

Bogan was unequivocal. He had not. He had not spoken to the legislators about any such thing and had known nothing about the bills. But he would try to find out what had happened, he promised the councilman.

Nor did anybody else from the Fisherville delegation that day own up to any pressure on behalf of the two bills.

Which is to say, an already muddled scenario becomes curiouser and curiouser. Presumably, truth will eventually out, and, in the meanwhile the Council is expected to follow through on a pledge made Tuesday to withdraw the Gray’s Creek annexation ordinance as soon as Messrs. Norris, Todd, and Lollar stood down on their bills.

Unaffected by all this is a parallel effort by Norris — his continued resolve to pass legislation affecting the potential transfer of school buildings from the authority of the Uniform Shelby County School Board to that of the several breakaway municipal school districts that are in the process of being formed in the suburbs.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Register's Office Has Newly Discovered Videos of James Earl Ray in Captivity

Posted By on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 7:06 AM

The famous picture, circa 1968,  of a newly arrested Ray in the custody of then Sheriff Bill Morris. What else might be on the newly discovered videos?
  • The famous picture, circa 1968, of a newly arrested Ray in the custody of then Sheriff Bill Morris. What else might be on the newly discovered videos?

We've all seen the famous photo, dating from 1968, of James Earl Ray, who was later convicted of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, as the ex-con vagabond , trussed up and held from behind by then Sheriff (later Shelby County Mayor) Bill Morris, was placed under local custody.

And we've seen Ray in any number of other poses, some of them stills and quite a few of them videos in which, well after the fact of his trial, at which he pleaded guilty, he can be seen mumbling his strangely smirky denials of any involvement in the King assassination.

But we haven't yet seen a series of videos that were apparently made by the Sheriff's Department of some key early moments in the Ray case: scenes of his arraignment, his gulty plea, and others of Ray being transported to Memphis on a plane and as a prisoner in his cell.

We learn of all these from a news release issued by Shelby County Register Tom Leatherwood which proclaims that the Register's Office "is in possession of eight (8) 5" reels and one 7" reel of video tape" made by a Sheriff's Department video camera — a Sony Model DVK-2400 — that has since disappeared. But the tapes exist, marked as to the nature of their contents, though they are formatted by an obsolete method that, as of now, keeps them from being seen.

Accordingly, says the Leatherwood news release, the Register's Office "is currently seeking a qualified company and grant opportunities to restore/convert these tapes to a digital format so as to preserve and provide public access to this historical material. "

As the release notes, "the labels and the daily jail activity entry indicate a possible view of historical events never before seen" and the tapes present "a unique opportunity" to bring to light "a critical piece of our nation's history."


Here is the text of the Leatherwood news release:


JAMES EARL RAY VIDEOTAPES DISCOVERED
Shelby County Register’s Office to restore/convert obsolete videotapes


Memphis, TN 2/9/2012

The Shelby County Register’s office is in possession of eight (8) 5" reels and one 7" reel of video tape. These video tapes have not been released yet due to obsolete formatting. It is known that the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department purchased a video tape camera system in July of 1968. While the equipment has long since disappeared, we still have the owner’s manual. It was a Sony VideoCorder, Model DVK-2400. One tape is labeled “James Earl Ray Arraignment 7-22-1968.” Another tape says “Ray Guilty Plea,” both of which are interesting given that at the time no cameras of any kind or even sketch artists were allowed in the courtroom. Still another one is dated November 11, 1968, which corresponds with a date Ray went to court. A note that appears to have been attached to one of the reel’s boxes is dated July 19, 1968 and reads “Ray on Plane and Arrival at Jail.” One of the daily jail activity entries mentions taking video equipment into Ray’s cell “for the purpose of making a video tape.” While the actual content of the tapes has not been viewed, the labels and the daily jail activity entry indicate a possible view of historical events never before seen.

The Shelby County Register’s office is currently seeking a qualified company and grant opportunities to restore/convert these tapes to a digital format so as to preserve and provide public access to this historical material. “This is a unique opportunity to potentially bring to light and preserve intriguing images of a critical piece of our nation’s history” said Register Tom Leatherwood.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Two New Single-District Maps for County Commission to Pore Over

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2012 at 11:25 AM

The Shelby County Commission’s search for viable and mutually agreeable district lines continues Monday, and two new versions of a single-member-district map will apparently be presented.

One, designated 2K, would seem to incorporate suggestions made at the last meeting by Commissioner Mike Ritz, who is keen on seeing firm dividing lines between areas now with in the City of Memphis and areas outside those limits. It posits 7 predominantly African-American districts and 6 predominantly white ones, the latter including four confined to Memphis’s suburban area.

Map 2K
  • Map 2K

These proportions are in line with those the Commission has been attempting to observe, corresponding roughly to Shelby County’s demographic data as of the 2010 Census.

A second map, designated 2L, is said to have resulted from suggestions made by Commissioner Henri Brooks. It posits 8 predominantly African-American districts and 5 predominantly white ones. One of the majority black districts — just barely so at 53.6 percent — would be confined to the county’s southeast corner and would incorporate sections of old Germantown.

This redrawing is apparently in response to testimony from Josh Whitehead of the Office of Planning and Development at last week's general government committee meeting that blacks constitute roughly 25 percent of the county's population outside Memphis.

Map 2L
  • Map 2L

Both maps, particularly the latter, are sure to involve prolonged discussion at Monday’s meeting.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The City/County/State Annexation Stand-off for Dummies

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 10:58 AM

City Councilman Jim Strickland and Mayor Wharton mull over crisis at Thursday night fundraiser.
  • JB
  • City Councilman Jim Strickland and Mayor Wharton mull over crisis at Thursday night fundraiser.

The current version of the latest Memphis blow-up — one which all the involved principals appear to be accepting, perhaps for the sake of a momentary armistice — is that a local, almost casual impulse was the source of two radioactive bills regarding urban annexation in Shelby County.

The bills — one removing a key area from Memphis’ annexation reserve and another requiring a positive vote on the part of any community about to be annexed — were sponsored in the House by GOP members Curry Todd and Ron Lollar and in the Senate by no less than Majority Leader Mark Norris. All are legislators from suburban Shelby County.

It should be noted that Norris-Todd is the popular name for Public Chapter One of 2011, the bill governing the ongoing merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, and that Lollar was an unacknowledged co-author, along with Norris and Todd, of that legislation.

Supposedly the residents of tiny Fisherville, an unincorporated bedroom suburb on the rim of Memphis and squarely in the city’s annexation reserve, began agitating for legislation to protect them from potential absorption — some day, some way — by Memphis. And Todd and Lollar, innocently helpful in the latest telling, prevailed on the Majority Leader to — in Norris’ words — “sign the check,” and the bills got entered last week on the legislature’s filing deadline.

Whatever Messrs. Todd, Lollar, and Norris expected, it was probably not the rapid, almost instantaneous reaction they got from a unified Memphis city government, irrespective of Council members’ prior attitudes toward further annexations by the city. Perhaps a majority were opposed to pursuing any more such, and there is no evidence whatsoever that annexation of Fisherville or the larger Gray’s Creek unincorporated area was being contemplated by anyone in the Administration or on the Council.

Various Council members did, however, see the purpose of the new annexation bills to be that of bolstering the suburban municipal school districts now in the process of being birthed by enabling the availability for them down the line of a new population base and new sales tax and property tax revenues — all of which would be subtracted from Memphis’ own Christmas future.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the Council’s personnel, intergovernmental, and annexation committee Tuesday night, Mayor A C Wharton noted that the new legislation had been proposed “without even the courtesy of conversation with the bill sponsors and without regard to the standing annexation agreement signed by all Shelby County mayors in 1998.” This was a compact between all of Shelby County’s municipalities resolving the previous year’s infamous “Toy Town” controversy over a bill (subsequently found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court) that would have allowed virtually unlimited incorporation of communities of any size whatsoever.

Upon learning of the legislation Monday, Wharton and Council chairman Bill Morrison had issued a joint statement, which recalled the City’s fight with the suburbs and state government in 2011 over school merger and said in part, “…This is a continued all-out assault on Memphis and its right to govern itself. We are calling upon all of our local leaders — whether they be leaders in politics, business, or the philanthropic arena — and the residents of Memphis to let their state representatives know that this will not stand.”

On Tuesday, the Mayor and Council agreed on a dual strategy of contesting the legislation in court (primarily on the basis that it was unauthorized private legislation) and of countering it with immediate steps to annex the Gray’s Creek/Fisherville area to Memphis. A resolution to begin the first of three required readings was set for Tuesday, with a resolve to fast-track readings two and three if need be.

Norris, who acknowledged that he was surprised by the swift City reaction, began to back-pedal from his own involvement with the annexation legislation and, after conversations with Harold Collins, chairman of the Council’s personnel, intergovernmental, and annexation committee and presumably with Wharton, apparently prevailed on Todd and Lollar to allow the bills to be “held on desk” while an Attorney General’s opinion on the bills’ legal status was requested.

This morphed into a general stand-down , during which Norris himself expressed doubt about the annexation bills’ constitutionality and the Fisherville thesis was surfaced, after which all parties — Wharton, the Council, and the legislators — appear to have consented to an indefinite cease-fire in place. (Council chairman Morrison said Thursday night, however, that he intended to speed the annexation process through at least the second reading, “just in case.”)

In any case, even in clearly distancing himself from the volatile and misfiring annexation bills, Norris made clear to the Flyer that he would hold fast to his de facto 30-day ultimatum to process legislation on the status of the school infrastructure sought at little or no cost by emergent suburban municipal school districts in Shelby County.

Norris had said that, in the absence of any general agreement between governmental and school authorities in on the status of the school buildings, he would introduce appropriate legislation to resolve the issue.

Simultaneously came an unexpected move from David Pickler, the former Shelby County Schools board chairman whose stated resolve in late 2010 to seek special-school-district status for his system is cited by many as the catalyst for the Memphis City Schools board’s fateful decision to surrender the MCS charter, thus forcing merger.

For the last several months, Pickler has been a member of both the Uniform School Board now governing SCS and MCS preparatory to their 2013 merger and the Transition Planning Committee created by Norris-Todd to advise in the merger process. During that time his public statements have been highly generalized and largely confined to the idea that everybody should work together to make the merger work.

In an interview with the Flyer this past week, however, Pickler abandoned that position, calling for the TPC to reconfigure its purpose around the idea of multiple school districts — including charter schools and the state’s Achievement School District as well as the municipal schools now clearly in the process of formation.

Accordingly Pickler called for the TPC to be addressed by Jim Mitchell, a former Shelby County school superintendent who is now a consultant advising the sub urban municipalities on setting up their school systems. (A TPC committee met Thursday afternoon and suggested the proposal be dealt with at next week’s full meeting of the Committee. Shelb y County Mayor Mark Luttrell embroidered on the idea with an open invitation to all suburban mayors to address the full TPC.)

Citing Norris’ determination on the school-building issue, Pickler said, ““The Transition Planning Committee has to take under consideration this new initiative by Sen. Norris. If we ignore it, Sen. Norris seems to have a plan to implement.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Still No Consensus: The County Commission’s Long and Winding Road on Redistricting

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 12:17 AM

long_and_winding_road.jpg
Even as Memphis city government finds itself locked in a high-stakes struggle with a suburban/state government agenda, and as public attention begins inevitably to turn in that direction, the Shelby County Commission continues to be mired in a dispute over redistricting that seems no closer to resolution than ever.

It took the better part of two hours on Wednesday, and immersion in a stupefying amount of both detail and rancor, but the Commission’s general government committee did manage two votes — one of 6-6 on redistricting map 3C, which posits 4 three-member districts and 1 single-member district; and another of 6-4 with 2 abstentions on 2J, a map dividing Shelby County into 13 single-member districts.

That translated into a “fail” for 3C and a provisional “pass” for 2J, although for either plan to succeed requires a series of two majority votes (at least 7 supporters) and a final super-majority of 9.

In one version or another, both plans have been there before — as has a variant plan with 6 two-member districts and 1 single-member district.

And, though at various time several of the major questions about all of the plans had seemed to be answered, all of them were called back up again in a meandering and often bitter debate.

For whatever reason, citizen attorney Keith Kyles seems to regard his opinions from the commission dock to be interesting and keeps offering them. For whatever reason, Justin Ford, the youngest Commission member and until recently the quietest, seems to believe that he can infuse new life into 3C by sheer willpower (or windpower), and, though he keeps denying he’s involved in a personal vendetta with Commissioner Walter Bailey, he cannot let a meeting go by without assailing Bailey, a single-member advocate, as a “hypocrite.”

(Some clue as to that obsession may have emerged Wednesday with Ford’s chastising of Bailey for not singling him out as a young black leader.)

And Commissioner Mike Ritz, who famously takes an arsenal of fine-tooth combs to Commission matters, will apparently never be satisfied with the exact arrangement of precincts along the East Memphis-suburban rim.

And these are just a few of the tics that materialize regularly in Commission debate on a redistricting which was to have been settled at year’s end and may yet drag on for another year, though Chancellor Arnold Goldin now has the option of recalling the case into his court, where a suit from three commissioners — Bailey, Terry Roland, and Ritz — put it back in December.

Absent from Wednesday’s deliberations was Commissioner James Harvey, who — perhaps lucky for him — missed much of the ongoing fracas over the last couple of months because of business in North Carolina but has belatedly signaled his loyalty to the single-member-district concept.

Some clue to a possible breaking of the deadlock came with the decision on Wednesday by Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Chris Thomas to abstain from voting on 2J, the single-member-district format. Is it possible that one or both of them (each of whom has long been committed to the large, multi-member-district format) sees some handwriting on the wall?

At least two members of the commission announced Wednesday that nothing could move them from their positions — Roland from his attachment to single-member districts and Ford, who made this curious vow: “I will not stop, I will continue to bring 3C. I’m going to fight for this map until it has no more life in it.”

All Commission members — along with Josh Whitehead of the Office of Planning and Development, who keeps turning out new variations of the basic maps as members keep tweaking them — are committed to appropriate African-American representation (figured at a rough 60 percent figure in keeping with the county’s demography) and acknowledgement of suburban growth (shooting for an ideal of four suburban members).

Although racial and political factors are far from absent in the present lineups, there are blacks and whites and Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the argument. Which is to say, personal requirements seem to be predominating.

Whatever eventually happens, and however long it takes, it is hard to disagree with Commissioner Bailey’s assessment Wednesday that the Commission was “back at Square One” and is involved in “utter futility and a waste of time.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pickler Now Wants the TPC to Plan For Multiple School Districts

Posted By on Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 7:25 AM

David Pick;er, SCS, USB, TPC
  • JB
  • David Pick;er, SCS, USB, TPC

Concomitant with this week’s surprise move by state Senator Mark Norris and state Representative Curry Todd, both of Collierville, to co-opt Memphis’ agreed-upon annexation reserve on behalf of the suburbs, and the city’s hurry-up response to annex the Gray’s Creek area, was another ticking time-bomb.

This one was courtesy of former longtime Shelby County Schools board chairman David Pickler, a key member now of both the interim Unified School Board and the Transition Planning Commission established to guide city/county school merger.

In a weekend interview with the Flyer, Pickler confided his intent to persuade his fellow TPC members to reconstrue their mission so as to incorporate the concept of multiple school districts.

Said Pickler: “They need to understand that, whereas the opinion heretofore on the committee has been that they believe their charge is only to develop a plan for the entire district, I think that what Senator Norris has put before us and what the municipal communities are moving towards is going to impose a new reality on the Commission and its charge.”

Accordingly, Pickler announced his intention to address this Thursday’s meeting of the TPC by conference call from Washington, where he would be in his role as president-elect of the National School Board Association. He would ask his colleagues to entertain a visit from Jim Mitchell, the former SCS superintendent who now heads Southern Educational Strategies, the consultant group which is advising Memphis’ municipal suburbs on the likely formation of their own school systems.

This constitutes a return to form, of a sort. It was Pickler’s enthusiastic for a special suburban school district in late 2010 that was cited by Memphis City Schools board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart as the reason for their push toward surrender of the MCS charter, a move that forced the now ongoing merger of MCS with SCS.

For the last several months, however, Pickler’s rhetoric has been studiously neutral and generally supportive of the efforts of the unified Board and the Transition Planning Commission to move toward the new era of city/county merger.

No more. Or at least no longer in so single-minded a fashion.

Pickler expressed support for the efforts of suburban leaders (a fair number of whom belong to either the unified Board or the TPC): “I absolutely do believe it’s up to each of the suburban leaders to do exactly what they have done, to do their due diligence, to conduct the feasibility studies, and to determine whether or not an administrative district is both legally, academically, and fiscally feasible.

“They’ve done that work, and, while some may disagree with some aspects of their feasibility study, they’re moving well down the track toward a referendum in May, and doing the things that they regard as appropriate.”

In addition to the six or so potential municipal school districts that could be formed under the rubric of the original Norris-Todd bill, passed a year ago, other components of a “new reality” mentioned by Pickler include the possibility of as many as 65 under-performing Memphis schools coming under the administration of the new state Achievement School District and “anywhere from 27 to 44” new charter schools.

Pickler, who co-chairs the TPC’s administrative governance committee (along with former opposite number Jones), said his committee investigated at least 20 different school districts in the nation, involving urban areas like New Orleans, Chicago, and Denver, and found a multitude of different approaches to administering similar realities.

“I think what we’re going to have to do with the Transition Planning Committee [sic] is understand and embrace these new realities. And I think we need to come up with at least one or more alternatives, because I don’t think we can just go out there and say, ‘We’re going to develop a design for 150,000 schoolchildren’ when, in fact, by august 2013 there may not be that to start with.”

Add the fact, Pickler said, that Norris has vowed to follow through with defining legislation if the city and county cannot agree on the terms, fiscal and otherwise, under which new municipal school districts might acquire school infrastructure which is now the property of the county at large.

“The Transition Planning Committee has to take under consideration this new initiative by Sen. Norris. If we ignore it, Sen. Norris seems to have a plan to implement.”

Resolving these and other issues “is going to be fun,” Pickler said, with perhaps a shade of irony. “We live in interesting times.”

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